Turkana Woman Fights Ethiopia, Kenya Dam Project in the Already Arid, Conflict-Prone Region

Ikal Angelei photo© Goldman Environmental Prize

Lake Turkana is the largest desert lake in the world: It sits in arid northern Kenya and is part of a water system that communities in Kenya, Ethiopia, and South Sudan depend on for survival. The World Heritage Site is also home to crocodiles, hippos, and fish. But Ethiopia has started to construct a dam—the Gibe 3 along the Omo River—that would change the entire lake ecosystem. It would also lead to increased conflict in a region that is already extremely fragile. Ikal Angelei didn't want to sit back and watch this happen, so she started leading her community in a fight against the dam. They've had major success in the last few years, including convincing the World Bank, European Investment Bank and African Development Bank to back off the project, which is now on hold for lack of financing. Angelei spoke with me about Gibe 3's threats to the Turkana region a few days before her Goldman Environmental Prize was announced.

What are the biggest threats that the dam poses to the Turkana region and people?
The Gibe 3 dam is built on the Omo river, which is shared between Kenya and Ethiopia and is the main source of water for Lake Turkana. Lake Turkana is a closed basin lake, and with climate change, you already have increased evaporation, which leads to alteration of the chemical composition of the lake—and alters the ecosystem, and the fish and all the animals living in it. The salinity of the lake increases, and when you limit the flow of the river, it doesn't come down with the nutrients, and that reduces the nutrients for fish. That means livelihoods are lost.

Another thing is the water table of the region is dependent on the water table of the lake, and with this dam, the lake levels will drop. Then groundwater also reduces. And with that, the way of life of people—because we are pastoralists—is totally destroyed. We depend on groundwater. It's like having a three-legged stool and then you remove one leg of the stool.

And the river—it doesn't flow in one direct path, it covers the whole region. It allows for pasture to grow in areas where communities are living. So you affect not just the lake directly but the region around the lake because if the water's not reaching there, then there's no pasture. Communities then have to move to where the pasture is—concentrating all these communities in one region where the little amount of pasture is. So such a project would increase the conflict in an already fragile region.

Did you grow up with this level of understanding of the Lake Turkana ecosystem?
For me, the lake was just a body of water I had seen growing up. It's where I spent time with my family. When I was informed about the dam in 2008, I went back to the lake.

When I was a child, my father was fighting another dam as a politician in the region. And I reflected on that. He didn't understand the technical jargon, but he had a reason why he thought it wasn't right for the dam to be built the way it was. So when I went back to look at the documents again, I saw problems that would come up.

And that's around the time when Lake Chad was going through all the pressures and drying up. Looking back at that—at Lake Chad—is what really brought me to this understanding of ecosystems and lake changes.

Can you talk about the stated purpose of the dam—do you think the resulting hydroelectric power would be beneficial to the region?
Apart from just the dam, they want a Gibe 4 and Gibe 5 downstream. We're trying to tell the government there are other options of energy production.

Our government is already exploring for geothermal power. In Kenya, we have 7,000 megawatts potential of geothermal power. And within the Lake Turkana Basin, we have the potential for solar and we have wind power that has already been set up and should start generating power by next year or end of this year.

The amount of power that Kenya wants to buy out of Ethiopia is equal to what the wind power is actually producing and with the geothermal power—that's already enough domestic energy produced in-country that is renewable.

Ikal Angelei group photo© Goldman Environmental Prize

It sounds like educating local communities is at the center of your fight against the dam. How do you do that exactly?
When we started, most people would look at the lake and say it's impossible [for it to dry up]. We use videos to educate community members, and bring in a lot of technical expertise to explain the impact of such dams in other areas. And in most cases, we'd use the elders to give an insight about what the lake was like, what natural pressures the lake has gone through. Using traditional knowledge, they would educate.

Has your gender had any impact on your outreach work?
It wasn't so bad being a woman. I think it was being young, and sometimes being seen to have this idea, that it's an ideology. But it was hard for anyone to say I was a foreigner because that is home, so that made it a lot easier.

Has the Kenyan government been open to discussions about this project and the problems it poses?
The Ministry of Energy has insisted that they need this energy. What we are questioning is—how was the agreement reached, what is the cost of purchasing this power? That hasn't come out clearly and we think there's a lot of geopolitics around that. Because when you're doing an agreement between countries, this discussion has to go through cabinet, but this didn't go through cabinet.

We're feeling it is something between our President, Prime Minister and the Minister of Energy. Our members of Parliament raised the questions and a motion was passed that all projects within the Omo River have to be stopped until a comprehensive independent study can be done, though that hasn't happened yet. Friends Of Lake Turkana, representing the Lake Turkana communities, have taken the central government to court—for not following the laws and for violating the constitution. One of the laws is that every citizen is entitled to a clean and healthy environment. By the government supporting this project, it is not ensuring that communities have a clean and healthy environment.

Have things improved at all since the new government was formed?
They seem more agreeable to this discussion, theoretically, but implementation... A lot of the documentation is very theoretical. Publicly, they declare support for this project. A couple weeks ago, our president was at the coast with President Salva Kiir [of South Sudan] and the prime minister of Ethiopia and the prime minister of Kenya, and publicly declared support for the dam and for various other projects.

And the Ethiopian government is clearly supportive of the project.
The government is giving out a lot of land to India, Malaysia, to big companies to come and grow sugarcane and cotton and it's really causing conflict in the region. For us, downstream in Turkana, it's worrying. Cotton and sugarcane are the most water-thirsty crops. And sugarcane needs a lot of fertilizer. We are not taking into account what will happen to the phosphates from that fertilizer—that will choke the lake even more.

How did you convince the banks to withdraw their support for this project?
This dam was commissioned in 2004 and construction began in 2006. The actual EIA [environmental impact assessment] was done in 2008. It's questionable because the first EIA did not even mention Lake Turkana. Yet the river flows into Lake Turkana. We used the bank policies to question the bank. And for one reason or another—whether they knew it was flawed from the beginning or they just realized the pressure on them was going to continue, we don't know—they withdrew their consideration.

Lake Turkana is not the only region or community affected by projects like this. Why do you think there isn't more opposition from these other communities?
What really hinders communities from standing up is lack of information and pressures. A community that has a lot of food security problems, human security problems, access to education—all these pressures come in and communities just give up and say, we'll take it one day at a time.

It's very easy for them to be bought out—people come in and say she's lying, and give them money. Even for us it was hard, but we had to just keep pushing the agenda.

Turkana Woman Fights Ethiopia, Kenya Dam Project in the Already Arid, Conflict-Prone Region
"The Ministry of Energy has insisted that they need this energy. What we are questioning is—how was the agreement reached, what is the cost of purchasing this power?"

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